So Macron lives to fight another day. France’s Constitutional Council ruled this evening that the President’s controversial bill raising the state retirement age from 62 to 64 was legal and can be entered into law.
The Council, charged with ensuring that pending legislation is compatible with both law and practise, struck down some minor provisions of the proposed reform but endorsed its central thrust.
Attention now shifts back to the streets. Macron has been vindicated in purely technical terms; his battle with the unions is set to continue unabated.
A weekend of protests nationwide lies ahead, followed by more of the same, stretching, it would seem, into the late Spring and summer. The unions, backed by the Left in the National Assembly, have vowed to step up the pressure for as long as it takes to force the Government to climb down. For his part, Macron is standing by his insistence that the centrepiece of the legislative programme on which he fought last year’s presidential election should be accepted as settled law. He has invited union bosses to meet him on Tuesday, but the Left in general has refused to concede defeat and is poised to take the fight to the next level, whatever that may mean.
In recent days, support for actions that in March brought well over a million people onto the streets had begun to fall off as protesters grew weary of the struggle and of the cost in terms of lost income resulting from strikes. At the same time, the so-called Black Blocks – street-fighters pursuing their own radical agenda – had so come to dominate the campaign that moderates who make up the majority of those opposed to the reform package felt themselves increasingly to be spectators rather than active participants.
Dozens of protestors have been injured in recent days, some seriously, in confrontations with the police that have grown less and less retrained. Officers have had to withstand fusilades of rocks, stones, petrol bombs and fireworks. Cars have been burned and shops and banks ransacked.
Marx famously observed that history has a habit of repeating itself. What begins as tragedy ends up as farce.
In the case of France, the mob stormed the Bastille in 1789 in defiance of royal authority, ushering in the Revolution and the creation of a blood-soaked people’s republic. In 2023, demonstrators this week burst into the headquarters of Louis Vuiton, the luxury fashion house, to protest a proposed increase in the age of retirement from 62 to 64.
It is true that Bernard Arnault, the head of LVMH, Louis Vuiton’s parent company, is the world’s richest man, with a fortune of some $240 billion. What he has to do with the age at which French citizens may draw their pension is, however, far from clear. Perhaps the rioters felt Arnault, by virtue of his wealth alone, should be put on a tumbril and sent to the guillotine.
But as the casualties have mounted, so has the resolve on both sides of the argument. The President and his advisors must now decide what steps they can take to defuse the anger and restore some measure of public order.
At least it would appear they will not have to confront the possibility of a Left-inspired referendum on the Bill aimed at preserving retirement at 62. The Constitutional Council, made up of nine political and judicial worthies known as Les Sages, or sages, found this to be unwarranted.
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The Government will be hoping that the Council verdict, delivered after three weeks of legal argument, will take the sting out of the protest. The Left and the unions, for their part, have given no indication that they are ready to stand down.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the quasi-Marxist leader of the Leftist coalition in the National Assembly, said yesterday that the “sovereign people” of France would continue to stand up against the “monarchist” presidency.
Marine Le Pen, the parliamentary leader of the Far-right National Rally Party, who has won praise from Conservatives for not lending her full weight to the street protests, has meanwhile adopted a policy of wait and see. “The Constitutional Council decision may close the institutional sequence,” she said after the ruling was announced, “but the political fate of the pension reform has not been sealed. The people will always have the last word, it is the people’s right to prepare for the change in power that will be the result of this unnecessary and unjust reform.”
Last night, the building housing the Council, in a side-street close to the Louvre, was cordoned off amid fears that the Black Blocks would seek to smash their way in and trash the premises. Officers were on standby throughout central Paris, as well as in several provincial cities, as the implications of the ruling were absorbed and those most resolved to continue the struggle worked out their next moves.
The Government has won a battle, but the war is far from over.
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